Addams Family Values might just be the best Tim Burton movie that Tim Burton never made.
For the past two decades or so Tim Burton’s modus operandi has been to make all of the movies you would expect Tim Burton to make. These movies are so annoyingly on-brand that they’re liable to make fans wonder, “Hey, didn’t he already do that?”
After an incredible run from 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to 1996’s Mars Attacks, Burton has become one of the most dispiritingly predictable filmmakers around. If you created a computer algorithm that anticipated what projects a filmmaker with Burton’s aesthetic and history would helm after the inspiration ran out, it’d probably come up with hyper-commercial adaptations of Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, his own Frankenweenie, Dumbo, Sweeney Todd, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and, most lucratively if depressingly, Alice in Wonderland.
So when it recently announced that, right on schedule, Tim Burton would be venturing into television with a live-action adaptation of The Addams Family it surprised no one. Given the quality of Burton’s recent output, I can’t imagine it excited too many either.
A beloved live-action television version of The Addams Family already exists of course in the classic 1960s version starring John Astin and Carolyn Jones as Gomez and Morticia Addams. And just last year the mysterious and spooky clan of gothic weirdoes hit the big screen in an animated motion picture with Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron in the leads that got mixed reviews but proved a solid hit.
Burton’s TV adaptation is redundant in another sense as well in that a Tim Burton-style take on this material already exists in the form of Barry Sonenfeld’s blockbuster live-action 1991 film and its even better if less commercially successful 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values.
There’s never a bad time to watch or re-watch The Addams Family or Addams Family Values. They’re the kinds of all-time basic cable champions you can lose yourself in all over again every time you encounter them on television. But Thanksgiving is the perfect time to watch Addams Family Values. Addams Family Values is like Gremlins 2 and Babe: Pig in the City in that it took crowd-pleasing, iconic source material in such dark, bizarre and unexpected directions that it was inevitable that the box office would suffer even as they earned devoted, sizable cults precisely for being so wickedly subversive and perversely non-commercial.
In pretty much every incarnation, The Addams family joyously inhabit a world of near-total darkness, an incongruously gleeful gothic realm of shadows, violence, perversion, and death. In Addams Family Values, sunshine floods into the family’s cozily grim universe in the form of Uncle Fester’s opportunistic new wife Debbie (Joan Cusack), a vision of soft, fluffy pink perfection in tight, low-cut sweaters and the summer camp for the extremely privileged and proudly oblivious that Wednesday (Christina Ricci in her signature role) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) suffer terribly.
The focus on Uncle Fester’s bad romance and the kids at camp pushes Gomez (the wonderful Raul Julia, radiating lust for life from every pore) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) to the sidelines. That’s unfortunate in that Julia and Huston are one of the all-time great screen couples, a scorchingly sexy pair who remain in a state of intense lust decades into their relationship. Yet Julia and Huston remain so hilarious that the film’s decision to make them supporting characters rather than protagonists actually ends up working in its favor.
Addams Family Values received a blockbuster-friendly PG-13 rather than an R but that’s only because of the many filthy, BDSM-laced double entendres and ribald one-liners in Paul Rudnick’s intensely quotable screenplay apparently flew over the MPAA’s head.
There’s also a new baby in the new house, a creature at once adorable and deeply unnerving named Pubert but he’s on hand mainly to serve as the target of multiple unsuccessful murder attempts from his older siblings. The twist of course is that Debbie is in fact a psychotic serial killer, a black widow who marries wealthy men, kills them, then quickly squanders their fortunes before beginning the cycle all over again. And the counselors at the summer camp represent the smiling, grinning, chipper face of American Fascism.
Behind its cheerful facade, the camp is a prison of conformity and casual white supremacy, complete with its own POW camp in the form of a “Harmony Hut” where free-thinkers are subjected to brain-washing propaganda: The Sound of Music and more Disney than most fragile minds can handle. As married head counselors Gary Granger and Becky Martin-Granger, the perfectly cast Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski have such amazing chemistry that they seem like one fascinatingly awful being with two distinct bodies and a single mind and will rather than separate people.
The grand climax of the camp season is a Thanksgiving Day pageant written and directed by Gary that suggests a Turkey Day-themed version of Waiting for Guffman’s climactic show except that Addams Family Values actually beat Guest’s cult classic to the screen by several years.
It’s a Turkey Day celebration featuring dancing turkeys, including one played by a deeply mortified Pugsley singing cheerfully about their violent deaths, crooning morbidly, “Hey, it’s Thanksgiving Day/Eat us, we make a nice buffet!/We lost the race with Farmer Ed/Eat us cause we’re good and dead!/White man or red man/From East or South/Chop off our legs and put them in your mouth.”
The Thanksgiving musical takes gleeful satirical aim at one of the poisonous lies our country and culture is based upon, namely that the story of the early relationship between Native Americans and westerners was one of cooperation, brotherhood, and inter-racial solidarity instead of bloodshed and genocide.
With the forced smile that is her default expression, Amanda Buckman (Mercedes McNab), the camp’s embodiment of toxic positivity gushes, as pilgrim Sarah Miller of her Native American compatriots, “I am so glad we invited the Chippewas to join us in this holiday meal. Remember these savages are our guests. We must not be surprised at any of their strange customs. After all, they have not had our advantages, such as fine schools, libraries full of books, and shampoo.”
When Wednesday smiles to signal that she’s ready to play nice, even when it means playing Pocahontas in her camp’s clueless celebration of colonialism, it looks so violently, painfully artificial that it feels like her face will crack from the inhumane strain of grinning even a single time. In a perfect world, the 1994 Academy Awards would have featured a dogfight for Best Supporting Actress between Joan Cusack, who has never been sexier or funnier than she is here, and the effortlessly iconic Christina Ricci.
Ricci would ultimately win by a nose with the dark majesty she brings to a climactic monologue where she goes gloriously off-book during the Thanksgiving pageant of lies and deceit and, with righteousness on her side, sternly informs her apple-cheeked pilgrim counterpart, “You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now, my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadside. You will play golf and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The Gods of my tribe have spoken. They have said, “Do not trust the pilgrims, especially Sarah Miller. And for these reasons, I have decided to scalp you.”
From there all hell breaks loose. The musical atrocity breaks into complete anarchy as the outcasts and misfits playing the Native Americans–kids with foreign-sounding names the counselors don’t even try to bother learning, the asthmatic, the wheelchair-bound, the neurotic and aggressively Jewish–declare gleeful war on the pint-sized “pilgrims”, their counselors/oppressors and rich parents who deserve to be punished and punished harshly.
Addams Family Values is a riotously funny, surprisingly pointed satire but it’s also an unexpectedly poignant, even moving adolescent romance that finds Ricci’s Wednesday Addams, truly a malevolent force of nature, falling for Joel Glicker (David Krumholtz), a nerdy Jewish fellow camper who is allergic to life yet is understandably enamored of a fellow unhappy camper who represents death in all of its morbid glory.
When Burton’s Addams Family television show was announced, fans understandably started campaigning for Ricci to realize her destiny by playing Morticia. That speaks to the public’s enormous fondness for these movies, as well as Ricci’s gloomy, gothic persona.
Casting Ricci as Morticia would certainly draw a direct connection between the forthcoming TV version of The Addams Family and its beloved 1990s predecessors, albeit in a way that’s seemingly destined to make Burton’s shop-worn vision seem weaker and less necessary by comparison.
Watch Addams Family Values on CBS All Access for free. Or, rent it on Amazon Prime.